In my concertizing days, sometimes we used to say, “If only we could start with the second performance”—alluding to the well-known fact that initial offerings frequently reveal just exactly where further improvements could be made.
With the launch a brand-new building, those stakes are raised considerably. So let’s just say it: As the first venue of the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre to officially begin its artistic life, Cairns Recital Hall stands head and shoulders above any other similar-size space in the Niagara Peninsula that purports to reveal any type of music in all of its glory.
Not surprisingly, that happy state of affairs brings along with it challenges and opportunities.
First, the challenges.
No doubt, patrons—once the construction is finished—will soon be able to enter via the main entrance on St. Paul Street. The Centre’s ever-friendly front-of-house personnel were most helpful in guiding newcomers to the secondary entryway.
Once inside the 300+-seat room, the eye is initially delighted with so much wood (all the better to aid and abet first-rate acoustics) only to be somewhat distressed by the wide-open, on-stage doors (beyond the larger of which an unwanted blue monitor was visible to some) and the decidedly ugly ceiling which makes no attempt to even cover the florescent work lights—not dissimilar to the Ottawa Train Station where the populace wondered why the transportation hub was in service when, clearly, the roof wasn’t yet done!
Hopefully at least two of these visual eyesores will be remedied, further enhancing the overall experience for all concerned.
Nonetheless, the acoustics have world-class possibilities, largely depending on just who will be plying their crafts. However, the overly loud, unseen announcer (as opposed to MC Brian Power, who kept the proceedings moving steadily forward—were microphones really needed?), letting us all know that the “show” had reached intermission was a ridiculous intrusion on the eardrums for the vast majority of concertgoers—even the Stratford Shakespeare Festival has abandoned over-the-PA cellphone scoldings, allowing its devoted audience to let the playwrights deliver the first words spoken at a performance. Isn’t just lowering or raising the house lights enough of a cue?
As to the music…
In a sense, the concert could have been entitled, “An Evening with Karin Di Bella.” Here’s a musician and educator that certainly understands the true meaning of “lead by example.” The Chair of Brock’s Music Department—even as the fall semester gets underway: one of the busiest times of the year—selected four singular works (one of them a request from a significant donor) to demonstrate the capabilities of the newly acquired Steinway.
Stephanie Martin’s, The Garden City—given its inaugural performance—had an appropriately verdant feel and language foreign to no one. Interestingly (and wisely), Di Bella asked the attentive crowd to withhold their applause before launching into Rachmaninoff’s best-known Prelude (marvellously voiced and weighted) then moving silently and thoughtfully to Reflections on a Traditional American Melody by Jack Behrens. The power of the Rachmaninoff was ideally balanced by a much more introspective work that traced its lineage back to 1831; a fine pairing indeed.
To close out the first half and dramatically switch gears into a more festive tone, Ernesto Lecuona’s Suite Andalucia filled the room with Cuban sunshine, warmth, drama and joy as the familiar melodies kindled old memories or sparked new ones. Di Bella’s infectious enthusiasm was immediately apparent and gave the large crowd much to savour as the Steinway was put through its paces most satisfactorily.
After the break, (where I'd wandered about the remainder of the complex as far as barriers would allow; seems there’s still much to do before the Niagara Symphony’s Beethoven Concerto Marathon at the end of the month), Di Bella was joined by violinist Vera Alekseeva and cellist Gordon Cleland for Beethoven’s “Archduke” Trio.
This reading was as instructive as it was memorable. It was obvious from the outset that the excellent acoustics will require some adjustments by the performers to style, touch and tone if a true meeting of musical personalities in service of the composer is to be achieved.
The best example of this challenge came in the "Scherzo." Here the opening strings were wonderfully dry without being parched, yet the piano couldn’t match the length, needing to employ a less-is-more strategy. As time goes on, players and students alike will discover the keys to unlocking the magic of Cairns Recital Hall, which is an instrument unto itself. The possibility of many, many special concerts to come already makes this ambitious co-venture a resounding success. JWR